In Ireland, we’ve been extraordinarily monogamous when it comes to our historical bedfellows. Barring our medieval monks and the occasional eighteenth-century adventurer, it’s always been about the boy-next-door (or the bully across the street, depending on your point of view). Conqueror, oppressor and sometime lover, Britain is ‘the tall kingdom over your shoulder’ Seamus Heaney tells us, ‘That you would neither cajole nor ignore’.
That’s one reason why Ireland’s role in World War II is such interesting fodder for the fiction writer. The new Irish republic was only two years old when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. In order to underline his country’s hard-won sovereignty, Eamon De Valera decided to pursue an official policy of neutrality (with an unofficial pro-British bias). Over 70,000 Southern Irish citizens signed up to fight in the British armed forces, but Ireland herself had no war. In a delightful exercise in euphemism, we had the ‘Emergency’ instead. For the first time, too, we had a new boy to worry about: someone who would have no qualms about forcing himself on us if it suited him.
Meanwhile, mindful of the old battle cry that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’, some on the far fringes of republicanism began eyeing up Nazi Germany as a useful new friend. Stories abounded of spies landing on remote Irish hillsides, of U-boats re-fuelling in remote inlets. These tales were largely apocryphal (though the Abwehr did parachute in several rather inept spies, who were promptly interned) but they added to the general air of foreboding. Robert Fisk has described Ireland during the ‘Emergency’ as an isolated place, its people watching the flickering shadows of external events on the wall of Plato’s Cave. I tried to capture this sense of enclosure, and the strange mixture of passivity, self-reliance, and voyeuristic dread with which the Irish awaited their fate.
I chose to set my novel, A Parachute in the Lime Tree, during the tense weeks following the Belfast blitz – in April and May of 1941 – when neutral Ireland seemed at its most vulnerable. The morning after Belfast is bombed, the unpredictable Kitty Hennessy awakes to find a German parachute caught in one of the trees in her garden in remote Dunkerin. That discovery sets up a chain of events with life-long consequences for four characters, two German and two Irish. While most of the narrative takes place in Ireland, the story’s roots are in Berlin - in the relationship between Oskar, whose parachute Kitty discovers, and his Jewish sweetheart, Elsa.
Oskar is a conscript member of a bomber crew. Having made a dangerous leap out of the war he is on a quest to trace Elsa, who was forced to flee Berlin for Ireland before the outbreak of war. Ireland at the time was a rather colourless, mono-cultural place and both Oskar and Elsa would have seemed like exotic birds. Oskar, however, doesn’t realise just how conspicuous he is. Having jumped out of the war, he now feels almost immune to it. For Kitty, who can be maddeningly (if endearingly) capricious, the very fact that he is so different from anyone she has ever met before lends him an irresistible allure.
As for Oskar, intent on his quest, everything about Ireland is odd, different. He hasn’t a clue what Bovril is, or Bird’s, or why a trolley-bus might have Gold Flake written on the side. After the lurid blare of Nazi Germany, Ireland seems a much more muted place, much more dimly lit. He begins to convince himself that, despite the sketchy information at his disposal, he will succeed in finding Elsa. Elsa, meanwhile, is simply doing her best to maintain her equilibrium. Finding herself on ‘this windy island, the grey corner into which she’d been tucked’ and haunted by the plight of the parents she had to leave behind, she takes refuge in her love of the piano and just tries to get by. As a German (albeit a refugee from Nazi persecution), Elsa is advised that ‘it might do no harm to blend in a bit. Become Elsie, maybe, rather than Elsa.’ All the characters are for different reasons in situations of great jeopardy. That fact alone gives Ireland at this time enormous fictional potential.
Another draw of Ireland in 1941 is, quite simply, dialogue. Irish dialogue is a gift for any writer. I think it was Anne Enright who said that Irish writers start off with the advantage of dancing on a sprung floor. I suppose the most striking quality of Irish speech is its circumlocution. Much of the time, this is due to the influence of the Gaelic language which insinuated itself into the adopted tongue of the conqueror. In Irish-English, very little is given to you straight –unless it’s a curse. Everything is dressed up or danced around. Phrases like ‘he does be having a fierce thirst on him’ are direct translations of Gaelic grammatical constructions, (though if you try to ape us, we’ll complain bitterly of Stage Irishness and Shamrockery!). Nowadays, Irish speech is much less vernacular - many kids now speak a sassy mid-Atlantic form of English - but in 1941, in the days before multi-channel television, people still spoke in that whimsical, roundabout way.
Finally, there’s the lure of place. I lived in Dublin for ten years and, even though I’ve been away for twenty, I still feel drawn to it. A welcome side effect of wartime neutrality was Dublin’s avoidance of the wholesale destruction meted out to so many other places in Europe. Despite the best efforts of property speculators (and some notable disasters), the physical city of 1941 remains fairly intact. Certain things have changed utterly, however. Portobello, where Elsa stays, is no longer the fulcrum of Jewish Dublin and the city as a whole has largely lost the air of shabby gentility it had in 1941. When Aunt Effie gives Oskar directions to O’Connell Street, she tells him to ‘look for an Englishman with his nose in the air’. Well, Admiral Nelson is long gone, along with his Column, replaced by a steel spire (known to some as the Stiletto in the Ghetto). With the aid of old photographs, however, (particularly those bits the photographer took for granted) and total immersion in the archives of The Irish Times, the wartime city still seems tantalisingly within reach.
The fundamental appeal for me of Ireland during this particular period, lies in the combination of three potent ingredients - isolation, lock-down and imminent threat. Add to that the opportunity for culture clash provided by the introduction of two outsiders at such a sensitive time, and the stage is set.